February 28, 2020

Engaging and Connecting to Covenant Neighbors

I don’t know my neighbors. We wave to one another on our way to work, but I can’t tell you their names, professions or anything about their families. Engrossed in our own lives with hectic schedules and important business, we neglect these potential sacred relationships.

Oct. 27, 2018, changed that attitude for the Jewish community, and it transformed my life as a rabbi. As 11 Jews were massacred during prayer, we asked, meayin yavo ezri, from where shall my help come?

On Oct. 28, hours after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, I met my neighbor.  Father Ed Benioff of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills wanted to join us at Sinai Temple, in support of the Jewish community. His office door is 1.6 miles from mine, yet we were strangers living parallel lives in parallel worlds.  That Shabbat, Benioff graced us with his presence and recited from our pulpit, the Prayer for Our Country. 

Each morning we recite yotzer hameorot, God is the creator of lights. While the blessing refers to the sun and stars in the sky, we must also recognize the lights that will illuminate our lives only if we choose to ignite them. This is Benioff; a friend and a partner in faith.

Each month, the Sinai Temple clergy leave our desks to engage in Torah study with our community members at their offices in Century City, Cedars-Sinai, Westwood and Beverly Hills. Just over a year ago, our Westwood host invited his employee to our learning. She isn’t Jewish but was enrolled in a religious studies class and had a desire to meet other faith leaders. After the session, titled, “Is There Religion in Your Workplace?” I received an invitation to visit her church to meet her priest, Father Ed Benioff. My response: “When I have time.”

My neighbor answered our prayer. Help came from a mile away.

After Oct. 27, I lit the match, and ignited the flame of our friendship.

I finally met my neighbor. We broke bread at a local restaurant and we learned about each other’s faith. But it was on our ride to Dodger Stadium several months later, stuck in hours of traffic, where we put our words into action.

I told him that my wife, Rabbi Nicole Guzik, created a monthly “Spoonful of Chesed,” where members cook soup and bake challah for those who are ill, new parents, and others who are grieving a loss. He countered, and told me that at 5 a.m. every Friday, there is a line out the door of his church, with more than 100 homeless waiting for food. Each week, church members prepare a lavish hot breakfast to hand out, prepared for hours the day before.

Today, the homeless line up at the doors of the church, receive soup, challah and other basic necessities, with help from their friends down the street at the shul. We quickly realized that we must help those inside, but those outside as well. 

It is such a simple act, yet such a deep message of brotherhood. The more this small miracle was proclaimed throughout our neighborhoods, the more people wished to participate. At one recent religious school kiddush, families packed bags to deliver to Benioff, which included a winter hat, socks, deodorant and a snack pack.

That fateful day of Oct. 27 was supposed to tear apart our people. I am grateful for Oct. 28, the minute I received the phone call from my neighbor. He answered our prayer. Help came from a mile away.

Thomas Cahill wrote in his 1998 book  “The Gifts of the Jews” that we gave the world the inside and the outside. What we do inside our buildings must be shown to the outside, and what we do outside must be brought in. Take time to meet our neighbors. Don’t just tell them what we believe. Show them that our beliefs shape the actions of our life. Be covenant neighbors, allow one another to bring the blessing of light into our world.

Rabbi Erez Sherman is a rabbi at Sinai Temple.